The Eclectic Career of Piper Laurie

Piper Laurie and Sissy Spacek in Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976)

Piper Laurie, who passed away over the weekend at the age of ninety-one, spent the first several years of her movie career deeply frustrated. At seventeen, she signed with Universal, and the studio immediately cast her in the breezy 1950 comedy Louisa as Cathy Norton, the daughter of an architect played by Ronald Reagan. As Laurie herself put it, Cathy was “a caricature of a teenager,” and in her 2011 memoir, Learning to Live Out Loud, she claimed that Reagan, more than twenty years her senior and between wives, took her virginity.

But that wasn’t the problem. “Every role I played was the same girl, no matter whether my costar was Rock Hudson or Tony Curtis or Rory Calhoun,” she told the New York Times in 1977. “She was innocent, sexual, simple—the less intelligent, the better, and complexity was forbidden.” When she was twenty-three, her agent sent her a screenplay, “and it was a western and the part was stupid,” she told Susan King in the Los Angeles Times in 2010, “and I said, ‘I can’t do it.’ I walked to the fireplace and dropped it in.”

Piper Laurie was the name Universal gave her. She was born Rosetta Jacobs, and in 1938, the family moved from Detroit to Los Angeles. When she was nine, she won a talent contest. The prize was a screen test for Warner Bros., which didn’t go well, but when she was fifteen and still determined to act, she lied about her age to get into an acting class in Hollywood. After that string of what she called “bimbo” roles, though, she left for New York in 1958 and found plenty of work in television.

In the days when hard-hitting teleplays were performed and broadcast live, Laurie was first nominated for an Emmy for her work with Sidney Lumet on an episode of Studio One. To prepare for her role as an alcoholic wife in the original production of Days of Wine and Roses—directed by John Frankenheimer—she met and spoke with regulars on the Bowery. And she scored a second Emmy nomination.

When Paul Newman picked up Sidney Carroll and director Robert Rossen’s screenplay for an adaptation of Walter Tevis’s 1959 novel, The Hustler, he was only halfway through it when he realized he had to play “Fast Eddie,” the pool shark. Laurie must have felt similarly about the role of Sarah, the young woman Eddie moves in with; it lured her back to the movies after a four-year absence.

“Rossen’s crucial decision is to allow full weight and screen time to all of his characters,” wrote Roger Ebert when he revisited the 1961 film in 2002. “Laurie’s Sarah is the greatest beneficiary, a lame alcoholic who sits in the bus station when she cannot sleep, who goes to college on Tuesdays and Thursdays and drinks on the other days, who turns her face away from Eddie’s first kiss and says, ‘You’re too hungry,’ and who wisely tells him: ‘Look, I’ve got troubles and I think maybe you’ve got troubles. Maybe it’d be better if we just leave each other alone.’” Laurie was nominated not only for an Oscar but also for a BAFTA and a New York Film Critics Circle Award.

“Having proved that she could act,” wrote the late Ronald Bergan for the Guardian, Laurie “immediately retired from the cinema.” Bergan noted that she once commented: “Lots of things were happening in the world, such as the Vietnam war. I just thought [acting] was a really silly way for a grownup to spend her time.” Laurie married film critic Joe Morgenstern and the couple moved to Woodstock, where she baked, sculpted, and campaigned for George McGovern in 1972, and only occasionally took roles in television and theatrical productions.

Laurie’s long break from the movies was interrupted when Brian De Palma sent her the screenplay for Carrie (1976). She thought it would be “a hoot” to play the fanatically religious mother of a bullied sixteen-year-old (Sissy Spacek) in what she read as a comedy. De Palma set her straight soon enough. For Variety’s Owen Gleiberman, Carrie is “the most powerful movie ever made about the thing that makes abusive parents tick. And the force of that is rooted in the grandeur of Laurie’s performance, which is operatic, terrifying, darkly funny, and ripped from the heart. She achieves what movie acting, at its most transcendent, is all about. Bringing to the surface what lies beneath.”

Laurie was nominated for an Oscar for the second time and then a third for what the Los Angeles TimesKevin Thomas described as a “beautifully underplayed” performance as “a woman whose bitter indifference to her daughter proves deceptive” in Randa Haines’s Children of a Lesser God (1986). Several movie roles followed, but at this point in her career, she was making a greater impact with her work in television. She was nominated for an Emmy and a Golden Globe for her turn in The Thorn Birds (1983), the second-highest-rated miniseries of all time in the U.S., topped only by Roots (1977).

Both shows aired on ABC, and the network found itself with another massive hit on its hands when it took a chance on Mark Frost and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks (1990–1991). Laurie won a Golden Globe for playing Catherine Martell, who runs the Packard Sawmill for a time before she dies in a fire. Or so we are led to believe! In the run-up to the second season, Lynch called Laurie and asked her to return as Martell—disguised as a man.

The Hollywood Reporter’s Mike Barnes passes along Laurie’s recollection of the conversation. “What kind of man is going to be up to you,” Lynch told her. “You could be a Mexican, a Frenchman, whatever you think.” Laurie said she was “beside myself with the power to be able to pick my part like that. I decided I would be a Japanese businessman because I thought it would be less predictable.”

Having kept her true identity a secret from the cast, the crew, and even her own family, Laurie appeared on the set and in the show’s credits as Fumio Yamaguchi, a mysterious actor who had previously only worked with Akira Kurosawa but was now ready to make his U.S. television debut as Mr. Tojamura. Eventually, of course, suspicions were aroused, and Laurie recalled that it was Peggy Lipton, who played Norma Jennings, who surmised that there was a woman beneath Yamaguchi’s makeup, wig, mustache, and dark sunglasses. Lipton’s first guess was Isabella Rossellini.

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